Biden pick faces task of restoring trust in CDC sidelined by Trump
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be charged with restoring trust in the world’s foremost public health agency, where officials have been repeatedly contradicted and criticized by President Trump throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden named Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, as his CDC nominee. She will replace Robert Redfield, Trump’s pick for the job in 2018, who has come under heavy criticism for not defending his agency from attacks by Trump.
Walensky, 51, is renowned in the public health field for her work on HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
Colleagues cited her strong work ethic, skills as an expert communicator, her leadership ability and commitment to science and data as part of why she was selected for the high-profile position.
Jeremy Faust, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, called Walensky an “incredibly clear-sighted visionary” with the ability to see the picture without missing smaller details.
“The way to restore [the CDC’s] prior reputation and enhance it further is to put it in the hands of someone who has expertise and the leadership skills and personal skills required to wrangle these experts and stakeholders, and I think Dr. Walensky just embodies all of that,” he said.
The Biden transition team’s decision on who to pick to serve as the next CDC director was especially critical given the damage inflicted to the agency’s reputation over the past year, with outside experts noting several times politics appeared to take precedence over science, increasingly losing public trust in the process.
Redfield, a well-known HIV/AIDS researcher in his own right, has been criticized for not sticking up to the president and failing to defend career staff at the CDC from attacks and interference by Trump’s appointees.
Morale at the CDC has fallen to its lowest point, both because of Trump’s efforts to undermine the agency and the work of its career scientists but also the administration’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC has seen its public role in the COVID-19 fight diminished since Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in February that the public should prepare for serious disruptions to everyday life.
CDC officials once conducted daily calls to update the public on the state of COVID-19 but were replaced by the White House coronavirus task force led by Vice President Pence, which generally offered a brighter depiction of the pandemic.
Walensky herself criticized the CDC’s diminished role, stating in October that the agency should be at the forefront of the response and lamenting that career staff “literally can’t do their job.”
“I do think that if there is an administration change that we need some really trusted people coming back into light,” she said in an interview with Howard Bauchner, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The CDC has also suffered from a number of missteps during the coronavirus battle, including shipping COVID-19 tests that it knew were flawed to public labs in February. It has also been criticized under the Trump administration for issuing unclear guidance on COVID-19 that doesn’t match existing science or data.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently scolded the CDC for issuing guidance stating that people who don’t show symptoms of COVID-19 don’t necessarily need to be tested, despite evidence showing that about 40 percent of people who get the virus don’t show symptoms but can spread it to others.
The CDC rescinded the guidance following widespread backlash from public health organizations and experts, who worried the change would undermine public health efforts, particularly at local health departments running contact tracing efforts.
Preeti Malani, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, said she expects the CDC will be more transparent about its decisionmaking under Walensky.
“Dr. Walensky is a great communicator. There’s this real genuine nature to her. She’s a real person, and when you hear her talk, she will tell you what she doesn’t know, along with what she does know. The honesty and integrity has been there with her since Day One,” Malani said.
Several doctors and public health experts praised Walensky’s appointment on Twitter.
“Running [the CDC is] complicated, especially in a crisis,” tweeted Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health.
“You need to 1. Communicate with the American people, 2. Run a sprawling organization 3. Understand, effectively use tools of public health. Lots of people can do one of these. No one I know can do all 3 as well as @RWalensky.”
Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, called Walensky “one of the most respected infectious disease docs in the world.”
“She has a long history working on HIV and has, in the past year, become a tour de force in addressing COVID. She’ll take the helm of CDC at perhaps its most critical moment,” Kates tweeted.
Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said the news “sent me into a sort of public health euphoria.”
“It gives me such hope to know that someone as brilliant, kind, and fearless as @RWalensky will lead the restoration of our preeminent public health agency,” she tweeted. “Welcome back, @CDCgov!”
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